S.D. judge hands victory to medical marijuana advocates

December 06, 2006

Jeff McDonald, San Diego Union-Tribune

A Superior Court judge refused to overturn California's medical marijuana laws yesterday, upholding last month's preliminary ruling that rejected San Diego County's lawsuit against the state.

Judge William R. Nevitt Jr. ruled that state law enforcement officials are not obligated to arrest and prosecute people who violate federal laws. The ruling favored the state and a handful of patients and advocacy groups that joined the case after it was filed early this year.

The final ruling was welcome news to lawyers and patient advocates who support medical marijuana. The case has been closely watched from Sacramento to Washington, D.C., for its obvious political implications.

“The victory here saves state medical marijuana laws from an ill-founded and unsupported attack,” said Adam Wolf, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Santa Cruz, which co-defended the case.

“The law is clear,” he said. “The federal government cannot force the state of California to arrest and prosecute medical-marijuana patients.”

The state Compassionate Use Act was adopted in 1996 after 56 percent of California voters approved a medical-marijuana initiative. Marijuana remains illegal under federal drug laws.

Because of the federal government's position, county officials refused to adopt guidelines spelling out how many plants patients could legally grow or to issue identification cards to qualified patients as required by the state. Late last year, the Board of Supervisors decided to sue California rather than implement the state medical-marijuana laws. After San Diego County filed the lawsuit, Merced and San Bernardino counties joined the case.

Board Chairman Bill Horn did not return a telephone call seeking comment about the ruling. In an earlier interview, he said he would not implement the state law without a judge's order.

Supervisors Dianne Jacob and Pam Slater-Price also voted to sue the state; Supervisors Greg Cox and Ron Roberts opposed that decision.

County lawyer Thomas Bunton said he was disappointed in the ruling but not surprised. Nevitt's legal interpretation was “incorrect,” he said, but added that no decision has been made about a possible appeal.

An attorney for Merced County told the court during oral arguments last month that his office would appeal if he lost the final ruling.

Steph Sherer of Americans for Safe Access, one of the advocacy groups that joined the case, said the ruling should persuade supervisors to implement the decade-old law.

“This lawsuit wasn't that popular to begin with,” she said. “What they were looking for was clarity, and hopefully this is enough of that for them to move on.”


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